History in the Making:
Volunteers Prep for Elk to Return to West Virginia
By Jana Wiegand,
Off of Highway 119, just past the city of Holden in Logan County, a dirt road leads into the rugged hills of southern West Virginia. Come December, this area, known as the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area (WMA), is expected to become home to West Virginia’s first elk herd since 1875.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) and local RMEF volunteers have spent over a year getting the land ready for the elk. RMEF volunteers have participated in multiple work party days, lending muscle to the release prep. Last December they built a three-acre holding pen for the elk, reconstructing the same one that Virginia had used for its reintroduction program. With the help of an excavator and a skid steer, volunteers staked out the area with tall, wooden poles and then strung woven wire fencing between them.
Just a few weeks ago, under clear October skies, over 30 people returned to the Tomblin WMA to put the finishing touches on the enclosure.
“We put the black cloth over the fence so they don’t hurt themselves,” explains Brian Satterfield, the West Virginia RMEF volunteer state chair.
out the outside of the elks’ enclosure is akin to putting blinders on a horse. After the move from Kentucky, the dark cloth limits the amount of stress that the elk absorb from their new environment. But even so, it could take over a week before the elk get the adrenaline out of their systems.
The fence stands about 12 feet tall, which meant that volunteers had to set up ladders on both sides to hang the cloth over the top. Inside the holding pen, the black fabric reached all the way to the ground and was secured to the cross-wires every few feet.
“It was a tough, hot day,” says Rob Pate, the Beckley Chapter chair. “But we had a really good work crew.”
All in all, the group spent nine hours blacking out the fence, but the growing excitement outweighed the toil.
“I think we’ll get a whole lot of people at the release,” says Pate. “There’re a lot of towns around here—Elk River and such—and a lot of local people don’t know there used to be a lot of elk in the area.” The first delivery from Kentucky is expected to bring about 20 elk to the Tomblin WMA, and continuing reintroduction efforts will help the local population grow. Kentucky’s success in starting from scratch and building its herd
up its current size of over 10,000 head serves as inspiration for the West Virginia program.
Back in 1997, Satterfield traveled to Kentucky to see the first group of elk stepping off the trailer. Despite the cold morning rain, he felt the passion and pride of being a witness to history in the making.
“They brought busloads of people up there, everyone from kindergarteners to people in wheelchairs,” he says. “It was so quiet and almost spiritual. Everyone was just in awe of it, and I hope people get that same experience here.”
Both Satterfield and Pate plan to bring their families to the big release in West Virginia. Satterfield has grandchildren between the ages of three and 17. He says everyone over the age of six already knows how to hunt, and the older kids help out at RMEF chapter banquets.
“We want to leave a legacy for our children and the outdoorsmen of the future,” says Pate. “This is a historic time—20 years from now, we can say we were involved. If the kids, the grandkids can hunt in the future, that’s going to be great.”
Plans are already underway to increase public access and provide some Elk 101 at the viewing sites. Pate and another RMEF volunteer have engineering experience that they plan to put to good use. “We want to help with an engineering design for the elk viewing area, making sure that it has a handicap ramp and other accessibility,” he said.
Elk-sighting tours would go hand-in-hand with trout fishing and other family outings, which would help support economies suffering from the decline in the coal industry. Everyone involved in the reintroduction efforts expects positive feedback from local media.
“The elk are just an awesome creature,” says Satterfield. “A lot of people have only seen them in magazines or on TV, so the chance to hear an elk bugling or a cow and calf talking back and forth, that’s really something.”